Kevin Lygo’s The Emperors of Byzantium is what it says on the tin: an orderly man-by-man (and occasional woman) account of the Eastern Roman emperors, from Constantine I who founded the capital city in his own name, to his namesake who presided over the fall more than 1100 years later. All are there, except the so-called Latin emperors who ruled over Constantinople in the decades after the Fourth Crusade. Contemptuous, Lygo cannot even bring himself to name them.

“Ancient Iran and the Classical World”, an exhibition currently running at the J Paul Getty Museum, is the second in a series that examines how ancient Greece and Rome interacted with the other civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and beyond. A sequel to the inaugural exhibition, “Beyond the Nile”, the current exhibition considers the significance of ancient Persia (Iran) and follows interactions between Persia and the Classical world from the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) through the Arab invasion in 638 BC.

In Matthew Teller’s new travelogue, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, he explains that while Jerusalem’s Old City is known for its four quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish—this is a simplification that doesn’t recognize the many other ethnic and religious groups that make this city so unique. As the title suggests, Teller actually identifies nine quarters in the Old City, around which he structures his book. 

Visitors from the Arab world flock to Istanbul today, enjoying the city’s cosmopolitan vibe alongside its comfortingly familiar culinary and architectural riches. Turkey’s accelerating pivot towards the Arab world has renewed old connections. Ottoman Sultan Selim the “Grim” conquered Syria and Egypt in 1517. For the next 400 years, Arabs frequented Istanbul as loyal Ottoman subjects. Helen Pfeifer’s Empire of Salons examines the first century of encounter between the Arabs and their rulers. It addresses the question of how the Ottomans managed to integrate the proud, ancient centers of Arabic civilization that were Damascus and Cairo. 

The Mediterranean, the body of water that now divides and buffers Europe from the “over there” of Africa and the Middle East, used (many centuries ago) to unite a region. The “Mare Nostrum” of the Romans was a conduit for internal commercial and cultural communication. And for several centuries prior to becoming a Roman lake, the Mediterranean served to knit together a civilizational way of life, legacies upon which “the West”, broadly-speaking, was based.

“To this day the monument remains nearly unscathed—a meager consolation in the face of such suffering.” The monument in question is the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, erected in about 705 by the young and energetic Umayyad (the dynasty began in 661) caliph al-Walid I (705-15) on the site of a Christian church which he had ordered razed to the ground.